Body Weight, Modifications & Safety in Aerial Yoga

As both an aerial teacher trainer and aerial equipment retailer based in the Midwest, one of the most common questions I encounter from new students and studio owners alike is, “What’s the weight limit?” This is an incredibly important question, yet many teachers (depending on their training and experience) may not feel comfortable answering it, either because they don’t have a solid understanding of the equipment they are using, or because it touches upon one of the biggest taboos in our culture, the ‘F’ word: Fat.

So let’s talk about it.

You’ll often see a “weight limit” of around 250lbs listed for aerial yoga classes, but in my experience if you ask the studio how this number came about, they may not have a deeper answer other than “that’s what my instructor recommended.” What is the significance of this number? Will a 275lb student break the hammock? Will they not be able to perform some of the postures? Or, worse, could they somehow be injured by the hammock?

Aerial yoga’s popularity has soared in the past decade, and as acrobatic hammock photos decorate our social media feeds, it’s easy to assume that aerial yoga is for the daring, flexible, and… well…skinny. Aerial Yoga is simply yoga with a fancy prop meant to help you in certain postures, challenge you in others, and create deeper self-awareness. The experience is a very internal one, so these sensations and moments of deep connection are rarely conveyed through photos. So, in our excitement to share our experiences, we turn to the ‘flashy’ poses for photos. The unintended, cumulative effect is an advertisement for aerial yoga that is more shallow and less inclusive than the reality.

So let’s tackle the easy part first: How much weight should a hammock physically be able to hold?

In the system I trained in, Unnata Aerial Yoga, the teachers are trained to ensure each component of their hammocks (included the ceiling anchors) are rated for at least 3,000lbs. Why? Because an object (*you*) swinging or falling through space and caught by a hammock can easily generate 5 times your body weight (or more) depending on the movement. I have personally witnessed this with a force meter. This said, there are limits to the amount of force your body can withstand before suffering internal damage (usually over 1100 lbs). Simply put: You need equipment and ceiling anchors that are much stronger than the load you will repeatedly put on it. Your equipment is only as strong as its weakest link, so it’s important to know what each component of your hammock is rated for. If your seller doesn’t disclose this information, this is a red flag. Usually the fabric itself will be your weakest link. The highest-rated fabric out there usually tears around 2,000lbs (and doubled as a hammock, this means the loop has about 3,000-4,000lbs of strength when gathered like a rope).

Since not all ‘aerial yoga’ hammocks sold online meet the generally accepted safety minimums of the aerial industry, it IS important to ask about weight limits. Just because someone hangs a sign saying they are an aerial expert… ’it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’

So, if a studio’s hammocks and ceiling anchors are strong enough to hold a person well over 250lbs, why did people pick 250 as the weight limit?

The first time you try aerial yoga and begin to transfer all of your weight into the hammock, it’s much like a hot bathtub. Your body begins a dialogue with the brain: “WHAT is that? Is it in the right place? Is it supposed to feel like that? Am I in pain? Am I receiving a massage? Am I in danger?”

Your nervous system continuously alerts your brain that something might be wrong, and the brain does its best to figure out how to respond to all the unfamiliar and potentially intense sensations. As you may have experienced, in your first class it can be confusing to figure out which muscles to relax and which to use. Luckily, the body learns at light speed. After about 3 classes you’ll witness a dramatic change in the body’s response to the fabric. As the sensations become familiar, the nervous system relaxes and what was once an intense sensation now feels like a “massage” you crave.

For many years I taught at a studio in Minneapolis that was the creator of “Big A#%! Yoga” (a cheeky name for yoga classes that modified postures to accommodate larger body parts and various body shapes). Because of this, and because aerial yoga was almost completely unknown back then, I decided not to set a weight limit for my classes, since my rigging was plenty strong. Thus, I ended up working with individuals who weighed over 250lbs on a regular basis. I also ended up working with many people with Rheumatoid arthritis and other joint issues.

Both populations found the hammock helpful for decompression of joints and accessing a larger range of motion. However, the pressure normally shouldered by the joints is simply transferred to something else: the places where the fabric makes contact with your body… Thus, the more weight a person has, the more pressure on the tissue and bones there will be.

While more weight and larger limbs can make certain hammock asanas less comfortable, over the years, I’ve observed that a person’s comfort level has less to do with weight and more to do with an individual’s (a) body awareness, (b) skin sensitivity, (c) fascial tightness, and (d) ability to breathe through confusion or discomfort.

I have taught 300lb students that don’t report (and don’t visibly show) any more discomfort than the 150lb students next to them. On the other end, I’ve had 100lb students report that inverting without padding was so uncomfortable for them they could barely breathe. I’ve heard self-described “wimpy” students absolutely love the sensations of the hammock, while I once had a bodybuilder tear up because of the intense sensation. Some students with Fibromyalgia just love the hammock for the joint relief it offers… while others cannot handle the skin sensation. Point being, you just never know until you try it. YES, extra weight will cause increased pressure at the point the hammock touches you, but there are so many other factors that contribute to a person’s safety, comfort, and well-being.

While some studios may set a 250lb limit, I generally advise students between 250-300lbs that there will be additional pressure from the hammock and thus I’ll be there to help them make modifications or add padding. I suggest this based on the feedback I’ve received from students over the years as well as observing how it is often necessary to maneuver differently and be aware of joint angles when your body parts have more mass. And, sure, muscle weighs more than fat. So tight muscles and fascia will definitely make the hammock feel like a foam roller in some postures (remember the crying bodybuilder?)

Since I never know how someone will react to the hammock, I teach ALL new students how to pad and how to enter the posture slowly (incrementally) so they can be extra comfortable as they enter into an asana that might be intense. As I mentioned, there are many other factors aside from weight. The Unnata Aerial Yoga method focuses around releasing tension and creating space in the body before moving into deeper stretching or strengthening. Since that was my training, I do everything in my power to prevent students from tensing/hardening up against the hammock.

While not all Unnata Aerial Yoga teachers specialize in modifying for larger bodies, all have been trained to observe body tension, pad, notice correct fabric placement, and creative problem-solve to help students access postures in a way that is healthy for them.

So, in the spirit of creating a fun and positive experience in your first aerial yoga classes, here are 10 tips for anyone with sensitive skin, tight fascia, or more body weight:

1) Padding is smart. Just do it. There are no extra points for bruising or nerve damage. No matter what your physical size or sensitivity level, using blankets and folded yoga mats in creative ways will help distribute the pressure from the “rope” of the hammock out onto a softer, broader surface. Simply folding the fabric in half or quarters can completely change the support as well.

My favorites are: a quartered mat for rib hang and back straddle postures; a folded mexican blanket saddled wide for hip hang postures.

2) Experiment to find a comfortable hammock placement on your body. Come in and out of the posture until it starts to feel normal. Ask your teacher for advice!

3) Take more frequent breaks off the hammock to let the skin and muscles decompress for a few breaths.

4) Move into postures incrementally, taking time to breathe and check-in with the sensations of the body each step along the way. For example, when entering rib hang “chair” pose, you don’t need to walk all the way forward with your hips under your shoulders to experience the benefits. Keep yourself leaned back behind plumb line, release your tail, and protect your knees by keeping them at a shallower angle.

5) Understand that if you are 250lbs, you have to be much stronger to achieve many of the strengthening postures than your 120lbs neighbor. Aerial yoga is a practice that sends you on a journey inward. Forget about what it looks like on the outside and focus on your own strength and what it feels like.

6) How much sensation is too much? The goal in many postures that utilize gravity’s pull is to find release and create more space in the body. If the sensation is too intense and it feels like you are being “pulled apart”, you’ve gone too far. Your body will actually open more when you step back from that place of intensity. You’ll feel less sensation but you’ll be able to relax and bring in more breath.

7) If you’re angry, everyone around you will seem angry. If you’re peaceful, you’ll see the peace around you. Bring this realization to your physical experience of the hammock: If you deeply soften your body at the places you make contact with the hammock, the hammock will magically feel softer. Once you feel safe, direct your focus to the physical qualities that feel good, and they will expand. (You can use this trick with mat postures that press your bones into the hard floor as well!)

8) Be mindful of your knees! This advice goes for everyone, but if you feel any instability or pain in your knees, stop the posture, and take the traditional mat variation of the posture instead. Ask your teacher after class to help you determine if you need a modification or whether you simply need to change your alignment, fabric placement/angle or muscular engagement.

9) If you have larger thighs, here are some inversion tips:
** Seated back straddle (from bucket seat):
(a) Don’t let the fabric ride down the thigh – keep it up by the base of the butt.

(b) Make sure more of the fabric is at your low back (as opposed to under your legs), since this is what will support you in the inversion. If you fold the fabric in half for extra support, this is especially important.

(c) Externally rotate your legs AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE so the knees point outward to the walls. Then bend the knees around the fabric into a “spiderman”/diamond shape. Keeping the legs clipped will ease the pressure on your low back and prevent you from sliding out.

** Hip Hang: Hanging with legs straight may create too much pressure at the hip, or can pull you back so far your feet touch the ground, preventing you from hanging. Instead, bend your knees, cross your ankle, and relax your inner thighs. Keep your knees heavy and rotate your pelvis forward until you feel your low back start to flatten out (versus rounding).
**Inversion “underwire”: For any inversion, cinch a yoga strap comfortably around your torso at top of your pecs. This chest support will help you breathe easier and stay comfortable.

10) If you are shopping for an aerial hammock, get “non-stretch” fabric BUT make sure it is the type of nylon that actually stretches “width-wise” (not length-wise). Cheaper aerial hammocks sold online are made of parachute material that does not stretch in either direction and can cut badly and cause severe bruising.

As an Unnata Aerial Yoga course leader, I equip trainees with as many tools as possible to address individual students’ needs. When the teacher knows how to help a student pad & fold fabric, how to modify inversions based on body shape (apple, carrot, deep lumbar curve, etc), how to modify for larger limbs, tricky knees, overly loose or tight joints, and the potential contraindications for each posture, their teaching becomes infinitely more safe, efficient, and satisfying for both themselves and the students.

7 Responses

  1. Male 250 lbs just started and I like it. I’ve had back issues for many years. Can this injury me more because of my weight or does it take more time to actually get used to it?

    1. Hello Rolando, We recommend you check with your doctor to understand any limitations your specific body may have. As with all forms of physical exercise, it is possible to “overdo it.” And, what will constitute going too far will differ from body to body. Weight is only one factor to consider.

    1. Hi Susan, Most teachers and studios who offer Unnata Aerial Yoga classes can accommodate beginners and brand new beginners, including brand new beginners of Yoga. You should check with your local teacher/studio to see what they offer. Each teacher/location is independently managed, and so class schedules will vary.

  2. I’m a yoga teacher trainer who specializes in adaptive practice and yoga for larger bodies. I’ve had many students ask me about aerial yoga recently, and I went online looking for a resource because I have zero experience. It might sound weird to say this, but this post brought tears to my eyes. Thank you. The thoroughness of this resource, the compassion and empathy for a body unlike yours, and the heart you surely bring to your classes are all so wonderful. This is refreshing. Thank you for seeing your larger students and for creating this wonderful resource, which I’ll be sharing far and wide!

  3. I’m a fat woman who has been practicing aerial yoga for many years. I’ve seen so little written up about what to be aware of and how to modify aerial yoga for fat bodies. I very much appreciate the spirit and information that it provides.

    One topic that I just haven’t found very much about is when a person with a large belly is trying to do hip hang, in addition to padding, how should the belly be arranged? Any help is appreciated. That particular posture has stymied me for years!

    1. Hi JC C!
      This is a good question, and although there won’t be one answer that will work every day for every body, our recommendation is to use the hammock either spread out and on the thighs to avoid the belly flesh entirely, or to use a folded mat (as opposed to a folded blanket) if you do gather the hammock material to do the position that way.
      Lastly, it may be helpful to use your hands to lift the belly over the hammock first, before using the hands to hold the hammock in place for folding over it. That simple maneuver can help prevent pinching any skin.
      Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

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